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Kashi ? The Kshetra of Salvation
Kashi or Varanasi, is a kshetra in the Hindu tradition from time immemorial. It is said to be one of the seven holy cities of Bharatavarsha and is immortalised along with the other six in verse thus:
ayOdhya mathurA mAyA, kAshi kAnciravantika I
purI dvArAvatim caiva saptaitA mOkshadAyikaha II
The origins of Kashi as a holy centre are obscure but the purANAs mention the town with awe and respect. In the legends and myths, the King of Kashi was always considered a powerful man and in the Mahabharata it was a matter of pride for Bheeshma to defeat the King and bring away his three daughters, Amba, Ambika and Ambalika as brides for his brother Vichitraveerya.
Many are the mythological stories associated with Kashi. Brahma, the Lord of creation is said to have possessed five heads originally. Owing to a fault of his, of which there are many versions, Shiva is said to have become enraged. In order to punish Brahma, Shiva clipped out one head of Brahma using his finger nail. Unfortunately, the head became stuck to Shiva?s palm. Shiva was cursed with the sin of Brahma Hatya and he had to wander about as Bhairava, in the nude, accompanied by dogs and with his face and form assuming a hideous visage. During the course of his wanderings, Shiva arrived at Kashi and there the head of Brahma vanished and Shiva was restored to his usual effulgence. He declared that the spot had given him the greatest happiness and he christened it as Ananda kAnana or the forest of joy.
Lord Shiva continues to remain the central deity to Kashi. The temple of Lord Vishvanatha or Vishveshvara is one of the twelve jyOtirlinga shrines in India and is perhaps the most important. The temple has existed since ancient times and it finds mention in the tEvAram hymns and also in the writings of Hyeun Tsang, the Chinese traveller who visited Kashi in the 7th Century AD. He also mentions a giant brass statue of Lord Shiva that dominated the skyline of the town. This is not mentioned in subsequent works. The Vishvanatha Temple was sacked and desecrated by Aurangzeb (1618-1707), the Mughal Emperor who built the Gyanavapi mosque on its ruins. The Maharani of Indore, Ahalyabai Holkar (d 1799), created the present structure in the 18th century. Though very small when compared to the Southern shrines, it nevertheless attracts hordes of pilgrims, who carry water from the Ganges and perform the abhiShEkam to the Linga with their own hands.
The consort of Shiva, Parvati is worshipped here as Annapurna and as Vishalakshi. Kashi is considered to be a Shakti pItha. Shiva married Dakshayani as his first wife against her father Daksha?s wishes. When Daksha conducted a big sacrifice he did not invite his daughter or her husband. However Dakshayani, overwhelmed with filial love decided to attend. Her father insulted her in front of the assembled Gods and also spoke derisively of Shiva. Overcome with sorrow, Dakshayani gave up her life on the spot. When Shiva came to know of this, he tore his matted locks in grief and out of this came Veerabhadra and Bhadrakali who destroyed Daksha?s sacrifice and also had him beheaded. Shiva picked up Dakshayani?s body and carrying it on his shoulder began began roaming the world as one demented. Vishnu then decided that it was the physical form of Dakshayani that was causing Shiva so much distress and he cut the body into 64 pieces with his Sudarshana Cakra. Wherever a piece fell, a shrine to Shakti came up. The left hand fell at Kashi and there came up the shrines to Devi as Annapurna and Vishalakshi. The deity of Annapurna is seen in a standing posture. She is seen with one hand holding a vessel filled with pAyAsam and the other holding a ladle that serves it with love to her devotees. Lord Shiva himself is said to approached her in the form of a mendicant and accepted alms from her. The festival of Dipavali is special to Annapurna as a gold idol of the Goddess is brought out in a chariot made entirely out of the Laddu sweetmeat.The Vishalakshi shrine is equally ancient and is some distance away from the shrines of Vishwanatha and Annapurna. Here the Goddess is in a standing posture. She has four arms out of which one is in the abhaya mudra. The other carries a water pot. The other two arms carry lotuses on which there are images of Ganesha and Shiva.
This temple interestingly is built in the South Indian style and is maintained by the Nagaratthar community of the Chettiyars. Every year it is the practice among this business community to make a pilgrimage to this temple town.
Kashi and the Ganga are inseparable and indeed the very image that Kashi awakens is one of a broad river flowing along innumerable ghats all of which swarm with pilgrims right through the year and at all times of the day and night. The Ganga as is well known is believed to have descended from the heavens in answer to the prayer of Bhagiratha, an ancestor of Rama. The river is particularly broad at Kashi and many of its tributaries meet at this holy spot. The rivers Varuna and Asi meet here and hence the town also gets the name of Varanasi. The meeting point of the Ganga and the Asi is called Lolarka, (the joy of Surya) and here there is a temple to the Sun God. The Varuna meets the Ganga some distance away and there is a temple for Vishnu as Keshava at that spot. Yet another important shrine is that of Bindu Madhava which is where five rivers, namely the Kirana, Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswathi and Dhyuta papa are said to meet. This spot is called the Panch Ganga Ghat. It must be remembered that Vishnu is equally associated with Ganga as is Shiva, for there is a theory that she emerges from Vishnu?s feet.
The Town and its Ghats
The kings of yore built several bathing spots on the banks of this mighty river. A series of steps at each of these places help in the pilgrim reaching the river. These are called Ghats. There are innumerable ghats in Kashi and some of the more important ones are the Hanuman, the Lalita, the Harischandra, the Dashasvamedha and the Manikarnika ghats. The Dashasvamedha Ghat gets its name from a sacrifice of ten horses made by Brahma. Other accounts have it that it commemorates the completion of ten ashvamEdha sacrifices by the same deity. The Lalita Ghat has a beautiful temple made of wood for the Goddess Lalita and is in the Nepali style. Lady Canning, the vicereine during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, has written about this ghat and has also sketched it in her journal. The Harischandra Ghat gets its name from Raja Harischandra, one of the ancestors of Rama who never spoke an untruth. The gods put him through many tribulations which brought him down to working as a keeper of the cremation grounds. He triumphed in the end and was restored to his family and possessions. This ghat is named after him and interestingly the cremation grounds are also located here. In importance however it is outshone by the Manikarnika Ghat which is considered to be the oldest and the most sacred in the city.
This ghat is said to have been created when Lord Vishnu dug a pit using his Sudarshana Cakra while performing severe penance. His perspiration filled the pit. As Lord Shiva saw this, his earring (maNi karNika) fell into the water and hence the place got its name. This ghat is the largest cremation area in the city. It is believed by the devout that whosoever dies at Manikarnika Ghat will attain salvation immediately and hence it has been the practice among many of the elderly to repair to Kashi and spend their last days there in this fond hope. In places like Bengal it was also the practice to send widows to Kashi. It was believed that they would spend their time in religious seclusion, free from any temptations. Because of its association with death and also because it is believed that the five elements that cause worldliness vanish here, Kashi is also called Mahasmashana Kshetra or the great cremation ground.
The Hanuman Ghat is famed for its Akharas or training schools for wrestlers. Their patron God is Hanuman. Samartha Ramdas (1608-1682AD) the Guru of Shivaji (1630-1680AD) and one of the leaders of the Bhakti movement had a temple for Hanuman consecrated in this ghat. Close by is the Dandi Ghat, sacred to the Sadhus of the Dandi sect. Another important ghat is the Kedar Ghat, which was built by the Vijayanagar Kings and which houses a temple for Kedareshvara. The Gouri Kund below has waters that have healing properties. People from Bengal hold this temple in great regard and throng it during the Kedara Gowri vrat.
No write up on Kashi can be faithful without a mention of Tulsidas the 16th century writer of the Ramcharit Manas. The Tulsi Ghat is sacred to his memory. His manuscript, it is said, floated instead of sinking in the Ganga. The first performance of Ramlila was held here. A temple of Rama stands on the ghat. The house in which the poet died preserves his samAdhi, his wooden clogs, pillow and the idol of Hanuman which he worshipped. There is also a piece of wood from the boat used by him to cross the Ganga. Of historical importance are the Mansarovar Ghat and the Man Mandir Ghat. The former was built by Raja Man Singh of Amber (r 1590-1614AD), Emperor Akbar?s general and brother in law and was named after the sacred lake in the Himalayas. The latter was built by scientific Raja Jai Singh (1699-1743AD), who also characteristically built an observatory or Jantar Mantar at this ghat.
Over a period Kashi and its ruling Kings, became feudatories to the Mughals and later to the Nawabs of Oudh. By the mid 1770s, the revenues from Kashi were assigned to the British East India Company. Owing to a dispute in the returns, Warren Hastings invaded Kashi in 1781 and forced its ruling Raja, Chait Singh to flee. Kashi passed into the hands of the British with a puppet Raja ruling under their grace. Its name was changed to Benares, a corruption of Varanasi. Post independence, Kashi was integrated into the United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh) and renamed as Varanasi.
Kashi has festivals all the year round. In January/February there is the panckOsi festival when thousands of devotees walk the 75.2 km route around Varanasi visiting 108 shrines along the way. The main shrines are Gyanvapi, Karmadeshwar, Bhimchandi, Rameshwar, Shivpur, Kapildhara and Manikarnika. This pilgrimage is said to be equivalent to circling the entire world. In February/March is Maha Shivaratri when the whole town wears a festive look and all Shiva shrines are filled with pilgrims. In May/June is Buddha Purnima when a large fair is held in nearby Sarnath, sacred to the Holy Buddha.The relics of the Enlightened One are on view just for this day and are taken out in procession. In June/July is celebrated the Rath Yatra just as it is done in Jagannath Puri.
In September is celebrated Navaratri or Dussehra, to observe the home coming of Rama from his exile. This is celebrated in the Ramnagar palace of the erstwhile kings of Kashi. The Ram Lila performance here is also very famous. The day after Dussehra is observed as Bharat Milap, that is the reunion between Rama and Bharata and the Raja of Kashi attends this festival. It is believed that his ancestor was a witness to Rama?s meeting with Bharata. Come October there is the Dipavali festival sacred to Annapurna and in November is celebrated Nagnathaiya which marks the victory of Krishna over Kaliya and this is enacted at the Tulsi Ghat.
Thus for all its associations with dreaded death, Kashi has its share of fun and gaiety too.
Visiting Saints and Savants
Mention has already been made of Goswami Tulsidas. Among the earliest saints was the reformer Adi Shankara (c600AD), who composed many works on the banks of the Ganga. Among his shlokas are the gangAShTakam, the kAlabhairavAShTakam, the annapUrNAShTakam and the maNikarNikAShTakam. The last named was composed at the Manikarnika Ghat. As per some versions, Sankara?s bhaja gOvindam was also composed at Kashi. In addition, his ode to the jyOtirlingas, the dvAdashalinga stuti, has a verse to Lord Vishvanatha.
Ramananda, the viShiShTAdvaita philosopher of circa 1400 too settled in Kashi and held his discourses here. The great Kabir (1440-1518AD) was born here and all his dOhAs were composed on the river banks. It is said that Kabir approached Ramananda many times for initiation only to be rebuffed. Not one to give up, Kabir lay down on the steps of the Ghat where Ramananda went to have his bath early every morning. In the darkness Ramananda stepped on Kabir?s prostrate form and in shock uttered the words ?Rama Rama?. Kabir took this to be his initiation.
The bhakti movement spawned several composers among whom several left verses on Kashi and the Ganga. Mention must be made of Sant Tukaram who sang several abhangs in praise of the temple town and its sacred river. In his Shiva darshana (madhyamAvati), Purandara Dasa (1484-1564AD) sings as though he visited Kashi on the occasion of Shivaratri and had darshan of Vishvanatha after bathing in the Ganga.
Among the Carnatic Trinity, it was Muttuswami Dikshitar (1776-1835AD) who was privileged to visit Kashi. He had moved to Madras along with his father Ramaswami Dikshitar who was then being patronised by the Mudaliars of Manali. To the Mudaliar residence came Chidambaranatha Yogi, who deeply impressed with young Muttuswami, asked that he be allowed to come with the Yogi on a visit to Kashi. Ramaswami Dikshitar agreed and young Muttuswami followed his Guru to Kashi. The duo stayed on at Kashi for five years during which Muttuswami Dikshitar was initiated into the shrI vidya method of worship by his Guru.
It is said he also observed the nuances of Hinustani music whilst there. Around 1799 AD, five years into their stay at Kashi, the Guru took his disciple to the river and asked him to pray and then put his hands into the water. Dikshitar did so, only to find to his joy a veena in his arms. The yali was facing upwards and on the gourd was written the word shrIrAma. The Guru blessed him and having divined that his own end was near, desired that he be buried at Hanuman Ghat. Muttuswami Dikshitar performed the final rites for his Guru and having completed them as per his wishes, returned to South India, where he was to blossom as a composer non pareil. His veena is even now being worshipped by his descendants.Among his creations are several songs such as kAshI vishAlAkshIm (gamakakriya) and gangE mAm pAhi (jhenjhuTi), which are on the deities at Kashi. On the last day of his life, in far away Ettayapuram he had a vision of Goddess Annapurna. He composed the song Ehi annapUrNE in punnAgavarALi on that occasion, a few hours before his merging with the absolute.
Swati Tirunal (1813-1836AD), the composer king, has given us the immortal vishvEshvara darshan kara in Hindustani language set in rAga sindhu bhairavi. Sadashiva Brahmendra (c1560AD) the realised sage, has composed tunga tarangE gangE on the glorious river.
Raja Sarabhoji of Tanjore (1798-1832AD), visited Kashi. An account of his pilgrimage was compiled as Tristhalli Tirtha Yatra, in the lavaNi musical form. It survives in the Tanjore Saraswathi Mahal Library.
Today, long after the poets and composers have left, leaving behind their impress on the cultural and religious map, the Ganga carries on, washing the walls of Kashi on its sides, ever eager to wash our sins away to the sea and carry the news of our good deeds to the Lord. A mere thought of Kashi or a mere drop of the water from the Ganga is enough to achieve salvation. Let us pray that this miracle be ever present in our midst, ever reminding us of the greatness of God.